These days, it appears that there are few things that Man can do, that a machine could not do as well, or even better. This apparently includes engaging in warfare.

Certainly, defense is an area where no expense is spared in developing the latest technology and improving performance, but sometimes constructing advanced weaponry can take a very long time. For example, the F-22 Raptor fighter jet was the most technologically advanced fighter ever created, designed back in 1983 to give the US military a tactical edge in the Cold War, but it took 22 years – and $39 billion – before it was delivered, 14 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

So the military powers have been looking for a viable alternative that will not take so long in research and development, and will not be so costly.

“All the technologies conceived at the fall of the Berlin Wall are now being used in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Ben FitzGerald, a Senior Fellow at the D.C. defense think-tank Center for a New American Security.

Fitzgerald believes he has come up with a solution, and it involves an unlikely technology: 3D printers. The potential of 3D printing is incredible (see Unknown Country 3D Printed Body Parts ), but it is difficult to conceive how one might utilise them in open warfare.

In a design specification entitled " Process Over Platforms A Paradigm Shift in Acquisition Through Advanced Manufacturing," Fitzgerald outlines his idea, which would not look out of place on the pages of a science fiction novel. In short, rather than spending billions of dollars and decades constructing advanced manned aircraft in very small numbers, it may be possible for robotic assembly lines to build thousands of unmanned "drones" from 3D-printed parts. Fitzgerald conceives that the infinitely configurable drones could be deployed in huge swarms, like killer bees, and controlled by digital pilots.

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has forecast that the future of military warfare lies predominantly in unmanned craft, with fighter jets being replaced by smaller, more manoeuvrable alternatives that can be controlled remotely. This would be less costly, more effective and would result in fewer pilot fatalities, so it is a popular concept that is being seized upon by governments worldwide. In order to retain its "super-power" status, the US military needed to discover a way of making the robotic "soldiers" quickly and in large quantities, and FitzGerald, along with his co-author Dr. Aaron Martin, Director of Strategic Planning at Northrop Grumman, borrowed ideas from the "Maker" movement, the technology-based extension of DIY culture.

With such flexible new technology, government would be able to respond more rapidly to volatile situations, almost making military craft "to order" as required. It might even be possible to make the craft "on-site" in war zones. The technology could also be applied in conventional aircraft construction to mass-produce parts more quickly and to a wider range of specifications.

Before we get too excited – or worried – that it may soon be possible to "photocopy" fighter jets and that our skies will be darkened by "robot wars," the technology has not yet been fully developed, as it is a complex undertaking to adapt it for the mass production of aircraft components made from high-strength metals like titanium. The Fitzgerald-Martin design spec states that "the technologies required to enable this new paradigm have not yet reached full production maturity;" nevertheless he is confident that it will not be long before his idea is achievable.

"The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed yet,” he quoted.

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